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La Crosse already had a housing crisis, but COVID-19 worsened it

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Before the first case of COVID-19 hit the La Crosse area, finding affordable, quality housing was difficult.

A large college town on the border of several rural communities, the city of La Crosse has experienced rising rent prices and stagnant wages in recent years, and many households are enduring unlivable situations in the spaces they can afford.

But the pandemic has only worsened housing conditions.

La Crosse housing crisis exacerbated by pandemic

Jason Derr carries his son Whitman, 2, through the back porch and backyard of their rental house. Derr has had issues with his landlord in the past, and things haven’t gotten better during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One 54-year-old cab driver in La Crosse has been on several waiting lists to be approved for low-income housing for more than a year. She wished to remain anonymous because of ongoing legal battles with a former landlord.

She currently pays $530 a month to live in a one-bedroom apartment, and is trying to find something more affordable for her $9-an-hour wages.

But because of the pandemic, she’s been out of work and collecting unemployment, which she knows might run much lower if the $600 weekly boost is discontinued — and she also suffers from COPD and is unsure whether she’ll even be able to return to work when things subside.

“If I lose the extra unemployment, I would only be getting $116 a week,” the woman said, worried about also paying medical bills and prescriptions. “I’m stuck.”

La Crosse housing crisis exacerbated by pandemic

Erin Derr cooks lunch for her children on a stove that was given to the family by their church. The stove provided by their landlord didn’t work.

The woman has lived in La Crosse for most of her life and said she’s watched prices go up over the years, in part because of an increase in property taxes.

“The gap is getting bigger and bigger. People are getting poorer and poorer,” she said.

In the city of La Crosse, about 37% of its households have a housing problem, such as cost, overcrowding, or kitchen and plumbing issues, and one in five households has a severe need.

Specifically, 2,730 renters in the city are severely cost burdened — meaning they pay more than 50% of their income toward rent.

And the floor on rent keeps rising. The fair market rent in La Crosse County, which is a goal post used to price affordable housing properties, is currently at $596 for a one-bedroom and $793 for a two-bedroom, making it essentially the lowest rental prices offered.

On top of that, a United Way study recently found that more than a third of La Crosse area households experience poverty.

“Before COVID, renting in the city was difficult. Now with COVID, the rental market is even tighter,” said Caroline Gregerson with the city of La Crosse.

“Because the college rental market places a floor on the market, renting in La Crosse has always been difficult. It’s difficult to find quality housing that’s affordable,” Gregerson said.

For one family who moved to the area two years ago, that’s been exactly the problem — and now COVID-19 is keeping them in an unlivable situation.

“Every morning we go out with the metal detector and find two or three nails,” said Jason Derr of his backyard.

La Crosse housing crisis exacerbated by pandemic

The Derr family has collected nails they’ve found in the backyard of their rental house in a jar. They guess the nails remain from a garage that formerly stood on the alley adjacent to their back yard.

Two years ago, Derr and his wife Erin moved with their three young children from Portland into a house on La Crosse’s South Side, “sight unseen.”

The family moved to the area because the cost of living was so low, both recovering from the economic crash of 2008.

Derr said he found his dream job as a campus minister at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and after scrounging Craigslist for a spot to live, they finally found something affordable with a property manager that seemed really kind.

But after moving in, Derr said they discovered that the garage that was listed with the property had been torn down, leaving nails scattered around the yard, and it took his property manager more than a year to repair things around the house like exposed wires, holes in the walls and crumbling drywall. Eventually, an inspector would tell them that the ceilings in their master bedroom were too low and against code.

And most recently, the family’s oven has been broken for more than 100 days.

Derr said many requests for it to be repaired or replaced have gone unanswered or ignored, and when a response was finally given, he said management said it would do nothing because it considered it a “cosmetic repair.”

The family has since received a new oven from a church friend, but the old appliance sits on their patio because management won’t tell them whether to trash it or wait for them to pick it up.

La Crosse housing crisis exacerbated by pandemic

Jason Derr looks out a second-story bedroom window with his son Whitman, 2, at their home, a rented house on La Crosse’s South Side. Derr was told by an inspector that the 6-foot ceiling in the room is below the 7-foot minimum required by the building code.

“Our biggest concern is, why aren’t things being fixed in a timely manner?” Derr said. “When I tell them that there are 60 nails in the backyard with little feet, why am I being told there’s nothing they can do about it?”

Before moving into her current one-bedroom, the cab driver also lived in a less-than-liveable space.

“I still cringe thinking about it to this day,” she said, remembering the mice running around her kitchen and jumping off the counters.

“They told me they’d fix it, but they didn’t,” she said.

She eventually went to the county health department, which ordered the owners to set mouse traps. But she said it caused the landlord and his family to lash out at her by throwing things, shoveling snow onto her sidewalk, taking away her parking spot, threatening to enter the apartment late at night without her permission and even accusing her of planting the mice.

“I didn’t know where to turn,” she said. “This went on and on, and I tried getting out of the lease.”

The Derr family has looked into buying a home in the area to get some more stability.

“I keep an eye on Craigslist. I’m seeing a lot of wonderful homes, but more expensive than we can afford,” Derr said, adding that affordable properties are often mixed in with college housing, which is less family-friendly.

The family has recently renewed its year-long lease because of concerns about what COVID-19 will do to their jobs, but they’ve since found out that the owner is working on selling the home, jeopardizing their stay there.

“We would love to be able to move. In an ideal world that’s what we would do,” Derr said.

“It’s the summer of COVID,” he continued, “and we don’t know what the fall is going to bring.”

Since the moratorium on evictions in Wisconsin was lifted at the end of May, more renters have been on the brink of losing their homes than last year.

June specifically brought an increase, and 51 evictions were filed against La Crosse residents in the month, compared to 30 residents in June of last year, according to Legal Action of Wisconsin, adding that it’s similar across the state.

Eviction rates have evened out for now, though, likely because of rental assistance and stimulus checks finally coming through.

“We are seeing many, many people who have still not seen unemployment benefits come through, or working with people who have reduced work schedules or are just returning to work and have gotten behind on their rent payments,” said Kim Cable of Couleecap.

The agency has helped close to 200 households in the La Crosse area using the Wisconsin Rental Assistance Program, and in just three months $338,000 has been given for rent assistance alone.

“The needs are significant there. We’re literally working with families right now who have no cash coming into their household,” Cable said.

“Trying to just keep these households afloat, so that they don’t end up in eviction, or God forbid, end up in our homeless system, which is also overextended,” she said.

But just as the pandemic’s future is uncertain, so is this relief.

“We are pretty anxious that we’ll see another spike coming up,” once the federal eviction moratorium is lifted and the $600 unemployment bonus is gone, said Rachel Fox Armstrong with Legal Action.

“We do think that it’s likely that this is a temporary phenomenon,” she said.

“I don’t have a crystal ball, but right now from this standpoint, here in August, we’re still seeing people who have lots of needs that probably will be ongoing for the near future,” Cable said.

U.S. lawmakers are still working to create a second round of federal relief that could trickle down to local efforts, but as muddied debates continue it’s unclear what the future for unemployment and housing relief will look like in that bill.

“We’re anxious, we’re scared,” Derr said. “I just want my bubble, my little space to be safe for my people."

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